Silver inlay is a beautiful decoration used in jewelry, tables, clocks, gunstocks and many other decorative items. The surface into which you lay the silver can be wood, steel, iron, stone, ceramic or just about anything you can think of. You must be able to carve it and it should be harder than the silver.
Silver is popular for inlay not only because of its beauty, but also because it is malleable. Gold is also used for inlay, but silver is more affordable for the hobbyist . The best grade of silver to use is sterling or above. Sterling silver, or .925 grade, contains 92.5 percent pure silver and 7.5 percent alloy metal, usually copper. Pure silver is too soft for inlaying. Depending on the carving to be inlaid, you can buy the silver in wire or sheet form.
One common way to inlay silver is to carve a design of grooves into the surface then fill it with silver wire. The grooves can be made by machine, but traditionally people have done it by hand with chisels and gravers. It is quite difficult to make a groove that is consistent in width this way, especially on curves, so take special care with this step.
An advantage of carving the grooves by hand is that there will be burrs and dents inside the groove. The silver wire should be slightly larger than the groove. Once it is inserted into the groove, hammer the wire into place. The silver flows into the burrs and dents as you hammer, and this anchors the silver into the surface. Therefore, glue is unnecessary.
Another method is to fill a carving with molten silver. Stone surfaces and larger carvings, not grooves, are appropriate for this method. Due to capillary action and bubbles, the molten silver will not fill all the nooks and crannies of a small hand-hewn groove. When filing or carving the larger cavity, use a wedge to cut under the edge of the hole so that the molten silver will flow into it and anchor the inlay. Stones and mother-of-pearl can also be inlaid with the silver into these cavities.
A third method for inlaying silver is to carve out a surface design and use sheet silver to fill it. In this method you would cut out a pattern in the silver sheet with tin snips in the same shape as the surface carving. Then hammer it into the surface in the same way as hammering the silver wire into a groove.
Regardless of which method is used to carve the surface and inlay the silver, it will be uneven and a little messy after applying the silver. The next step is to sand the area so that the plane of the surface and that of the silver are equal. The type of sandpaper used depends on the type of surface. Start with a medium grade and use at least three different sandpaper grades, moving on to finer grit each time. You can also apply a final coating of wax and buff the surface to a shine to finish the project.